In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Engineering the Energy Transition
June 26, 2023 Volume 53 Issue 2
This issue explores the energy transition needed to address the mounting threats of climate change. The articles are an excellent resource to help inform meaningful decisions and steps for energy-related contributions to reduce carbon emissions.

The Role of Engineering in the Energy Transition

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Author: Vijay Swarup and Robert C. Armstrong

Engineers have the unique skills to develop models, technologies, and systems to guide policymakers and society through the energy transition.

Mitigating climate change while simultaneously increasing energy supply to meet growing energy needs equitably and securely is one of the world’s grand challenges. Energy is fundamental to quality of life, underpinning essentially every aspect of modern living—from power to transportation to agriculture and more. Yet nearly 1 billion people globally do not have adequate (or any) access to energy. Moreover, because global population is growing, as is GDP/capita (driven particularly by emerging markets and developing economy countries), energy demand continues to grow. The energy gap needs to be closed.

Thanks to advances in solar and wind energy technologies that have dramatically driven down their costs, and technology innovations that have lowered the cost and increased availability of natural gas, the potential exists to close the energy gap. But emissions continue to rise. The challenge is to expand energy supply and equitable access and at the same time substantially reduce emissions.

To ensure that the energy transition is global—as it must be—engineers will play an important role in driving down costs and ensuring that technologies are deployable in emerging markets and developing economy countries. Engineers are problem solvers, developing, deploying, and operating technology solutions to address societal challenges affordably and reliably.[1] They will be integral in the shifts in energy sources and the development and scaling of technologies and tools to support sustainability and lifecycle pathways. And engineers will be counted on to deliver

  • research, development, demonstration, and deployment of existing and new technologies and infrastructure; and
  • the educated and trained workforce with the skills needed for the energy transition.

For the energy transition, a variety of engineering—and other—disciplines will need to integrate chemical, physical, mathematical, and biological elements to conceive, design, build, and operate processes, produce materials, and deliver services for future energy systems. The fundamentals of the various disciplines will not change, but the ways engineers understand and apply these principles to develop and deploy energy solutions at scale have to evolve.

Beyond their technical expertise, engineers have a responsibility to engage with policymakers, educators, and local communities to ensure that improvements associated with the transition are equitably allocated and that opportunities are broadly shared and accessible.

Shifts in Energy Sources and Technologies

Engineers over the past several decades have continuously grown and optimized the energy system—-chemical reactors have become bigger; offshore windmills are now at 15 MW capacity with 240-meter rotor diameter; and cars are lighter, safer, and more fuel efficient.

Swarup Table 1.gif

But oil, gas, and coal still make up most of the global primary energy (80 percent) and electricity generation (63 percent) (table 1; NPC 2022). It is important to note that although global coal use for electricity generation decreased only 1 percent between 2000 and 2019, in the United States it fell 52 percent between 2005 and 2019 (Davis 2022). During that time, US electricity generation by natural gas increased by 116 percent (Davis 2022), largely because of falling natural gas prices due to shale gas developments (Coglianese et al. 2020; Davis et al. 2021, 2022; Fell and Kaffine 2018). This transition to gas led to emissions reductions in the United States (EPA 2022).

The energy transition will require multiple energy sources to be deployed at scale. Figure 1 shows the range and scale of energy sources to limit global temperature rise to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels (IPCC 2022) or for net zero emissions by 2050 (temperature rise less than 1.5°C; ExxonMobil 2023; IEA 2021).

Swarup Figure 1.gif

There will be much more emphasis on wind, solar, bioenergy, and other renewables relative to today’s mix. Their development and deployment at the scale needed will entail multiple technologies, not only for harvesting solar and wind resources but also for storage (of many durations), transmission and distribution, advanced power electronics, and so on. Engineering demands of scale will involve both magnitude and geographic distribution, with the development of integrated energy systems tailored for specific geographies.

Swarup Figure 2.gif

Continuous energy is a prerequisite—there can be no gap in energy supply while changing sources, -carriers, infrastructure, or any other aspects of the energy ecosystem. Contributions from diverse disciplines must maintain and improve existing energy systems such as solar, wind, fission, oil, and gas, while new systems such as geothermal, hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration, carbon removal, synthetic fuel production, and biofuels are developed, deployed, and scaled.

Tools for Sustainability

Improved tools for policy-makers, investors, and strategic planners are equally important. Developing these tools demands engineering skills to (i) define potential pathways and their components and (ii) conduct assessments for both costs and lifecycle emissions.

In addition, mining, extraction, and processing of minerals must be greatly expanded—while drastically reducing their environmental impacts. Plastics recycling, lower-energy computing systems, and other emerging technologies must be deployed and scaled throughout the global economy. This will add multiple new pathways to the energy life cycle, from source to conversion to use.

MIT has developed the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME) tool to compare energy pathways (including the life cycle) in terms of emissions and cost. Its modular design allows for new process steps to be modeled and incorporated as technologies emerge. Integrated models like SESAME will accelerate the assessment of energy pathways and help drive deployment (Gençer et al. 2020; Miller et al. 2020).

Recent assessments of gaps in the innovation and deployment necessary to meet climate goals drive home the significant and widespread opportunities for engineering progress. A White House (2022) paper highlights 37 game-changing innovations that could enable a net zero economy by 2050. But an IEA (2023) report shows that, out of more than 50 identified technologies in eight categories, only 2 (lighting, electric vehicles) are on track for contributing to a 2°C future (figure 3).

Swarup Figure 3.gif

Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment

As engineers determine and advance solutions, mitigation and adaptation technologies will have to be developed and deployed at scale. Engineers will be central in defining the pathways to scale, to both meet the magnitude of energy required and bring down costs. Such efforts will draw on engineering systems–level approaches.

The current approach to research and development is primarily a series approach: programs pass sequentially through stages. To accelerate progress from research to deployment, we propose a parallel approach. Decision making must incorporate multiscale systems-level thinking, accounting for both scale-up and scale-out, to help prioritize technology options and design pathways to scale. Of course, the iterative process of design, build, test, and reiterate will also need to speed up.

Engineers must work across engineering and other disciplines to address the following in the energy value chain:

  • Improved efficiency: Engineers will continue to provide options to improve the efficiency of current energy systems (e.g., through fuels, lightweight plastics, resilient grids).
  • Systems-level integration: As an example, increased deployment of intermittent energy resources such as solar and wind will depend on grid-scale storage and firm power. Their integration will also involve cross-sector opportunities.
  • Materials and processes: Conversion and separations are foundational to energy. Both have seen advances, but energy delivery remains very energy intensive. New materials and processes that allow for lower-temperature and pressure conversion and separations can help significantly reduce emissions.
  • Manufacturing: Process intensification steps, together with new process components and configurations, must be developed and deployed to produce energy with lower carbon emissions. Entirely new manufacturing processes may be needed for new technologies (e.g., components of potential fusion devices).
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) removal: Net zero targets can be achieved only with negative carbon emissions technologies, which necessitate advances in direct air capture (integration of materials and processes) and nature-based solutions (integration of biology and analytical chemistry to measure and verify CO2 removal).
  • New routes to fuels: A circular economy will involve production of fuels from carbon dioxide and water. Engineers can enable this through, for example, advances in electrolyzers, methods for CO2 reduction, and new and cost-effective routes to making hydrocarbons from nonfossil fuel resources.
  • Nuclear fission and fusion: Advances in small modular nuclear fission reactors suggest that nuclear energy can provide safe, reliable, emission-free power. Fusion continues to be of interest if economic and scalable pathways can be developed.

Engineers will be essential in defining the steps to advance concepts to scale, but progress will demand collaboration between disciplines as well as between academia, national labs, and small and large companies. Progressing several ideas at multiple scales, in parallel, will be critical to accelerate technology advances.

The energy transition is a challenge designed for engineers to address: multiple time and physical scales, inter- and intraregional processes, and collaboration with policymakers and other stakeholders. Engineers can be the consummate integrators in the massive efforts to address this challenge.

New Skills and Directions

Understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, biology, and math on which engineering relies continues to improve, and capabilities and approaches for using them in the service of society will continue to evolve. Slide rules have evolved to exascale computers and biologists now have gene editing capabilities. Further changes are on the horizon, and engineers will be key to integrating new capacities such as the following:

  • Computing speed will enter a new paradigm with quantum computing.
  • Machine learning and AI will continue to accelerate.
  • Magnets, batteries, and photovoltaic cells will utilize a broader range of metals.
  • New materials will emerge, including biomaterials for conversion and separation.
  • Process intensification and integration will use electric heat instead of burning fuel for heat.

Engineers will use systems-level thinking to consider carbon accounting and costs, for example. New or upgraded infrastructure that accommodates both inter- and intraregional requirements will underpin new value chains. Engineers will design energy systems fit for purpose, differentiating urban vs. rural and developed vs. emerging market economies.

The shift from high to low capacity factor energy systems will be effected by engineers. In addition to development and deployment at scale, the shift will involve energy storage, integration across sectors, firm power, and decarbonization steps like carbon capture and carbon removal (e.g., direct air capture and nature-based solutions). Again, each of these areas will entail integration across engineering disciplines to advance technologies.

Novel materials will be needed, as will new skills for discovery and assessment of new compositions, faster ways to screen for scalability, new production processes, and new methods to use the materials.

And, of course, digital solutions will be integrally involved, in, for example, demand-side management, vehicle-to-grid integration, materials discovery, and supply chain management. Engineers will be called on to leverage digital capabilities, including AI, to accelerate progress from idea to large-scale commercialization.

Engagement with Policymakers, Local Communities, and Others

Engineers have the skills to play a central role in developing roadmaps and models to guide policymakers and society through the energy transition. Understanding the theoretical limits of technologies will be particularly important, given the urgency of the transition. Engineers will need to work with economists and policy-makers to translate theoretical limits to practical cost targets and deployment rates. Such knowledge will help define the potential for a technology or pathway and inform policies to accelerate deployment.

Engineers must work with community groups and urban planners, among others, to obtain buy-in and ensure equitable treatment.

In addition to technology, infrastructure must be assessed, planned, and built, in collaboration with economists, regulators, and policymakers. Again, engineers will play a vital role in defining and anticipating the scale (magnitude and location) of critical infrastructure such as pipelines, transmission lines, and energy storage locations.

Engineers must also work with community groups and urban planners, among others, to obtain buy-in and ensure equitable treatment essential for both political action and the permitting of energy developments.

Ensuring a Just Transition

Navigation of the energy transition will depend on a strong and appropriately skilled workforce, with a variety of STEM talent as well as diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. Inclusion of diverse perspectives, together with robust and respectful exchange of ideas, will be key to developing the range of solutions to ensure an effective, just, and sustainable energy transition.

As engineers consider a project’s metrics and specifications (e.g., cost, time, and performance), it is common-place to consider not only “averages” but also “distributions” and, particularly, to develop “robust” solutions that minimize downside risks. In the energy transition, there will be a distribution of costs and benefits in terms of geography, industry sectors, and populations. Engineers can use probabilistic robust design approaches to rigorously analyze the distributions of costs and benefits in engineering systems–level decisions and calculations about least cost and highest performance, while considering ways to minimize downside costs and risks of these systems. They should seek ways to optimize the robustness of solutions and quantify trade-offs among cost, performance, and distribution.

Careful engineering analysis will help to determine not only the fastest and most economical pathways from today’s energy system to net zero systems but also those that are just and equitable. Environmental burdens on minoritized and economically challenged communities, as well as the dislocation of workers whose jobs depend on current energy systems, should be explicitly considered in proposed plans.


The energy transition will take decades, during which engineers must look for ways to expedite progress. Engineers understand constancy of purpose, which will be required to navigate the extended process. There will be shifts in relative emphasis on fundamental research, applied science, and scaling, as well as scale-out and scale-up concepts.

Engineers will be counted on to discover, develop, deploy, and integrate solutions at both regional and global scales. Efforts to address the effects of climate change demand new systems-level thinking to develop reliable and affordable energy systems while reducing emissions regionally and globally, with both mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Education and development of next-generation leaders is essential. Collaboration will be critical to accelerate the development and deployment of new technology. Academia, government, and industry will be called on to explore new ways to work together. Industrial collaboration can bring together the requisite skills to advance ideas to the project stage and share the risk/benefit of new technologies as they enter the deployment phase. Engineers will work with scientists (as is common today) as well as social scientists, economists, business/management experts, and policymakers.

All this must be done without any disruption to the energy that undergirds modern life, and must support a transition that is socially just and equitable.

The fundamental role of an engineer is to create and innovate to provide solutions to society’s challenges. The energy transition presents an exceptional challenge—and opportunities—for engineers in virtually every discipline and all over the world.


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[1]  For example, a recent report provides an overview of the criticality of chemical engineering including in energy (NASEM 2022).

About the Author:Vijay Swarup is senior technology director, ExxonMobil Corporation. Robert Armstrong (NAE) is director, MIT Energy Initiative, and Chevron Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.